Frederick Douglass makes a New Year’s resolution to gain his freedom from slavery (1836)

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) must have been 19 or so when he made a solemn vow as part of his New Year’s resolutions for 1836 to exercise his “natural and inborn right” to be free by escaping the “hell of horrors” which was slavery:

I AM now at the beginning of the year—1836—when the mind naturally occupies itself with the mysteries of life in all its phases—the ideal, the real, and the actual. Sober people look both ways at the beginning of a new year, surveying the errors of the past, and providing against the possible errors of the future. I, too, was thus exercised. I had little pleasure in retrospect, and the future prospect was not brilliant. “Notwithstanding,” thought I, “the many resolutions and prayers I have made in behalf of freedom, I am, this first day of the year 1836, still a slave, still wandering in the depths of a miserable bondage. My faculties and powers of body and soul are not my own, but are the property of a fellow-mortal in no sense superior to me, except that he has the physical power to compel me to be owned and controlled by him. By the combined physical force of the community I am his slave—a slave for life.” With thoughts like these I was chafed and perplexed, and they rendered me gloomy and disconsolate. The anguish of my mind cannot be written.

Frederick Douglass took the opportunity of a New Year’s resolution to usher in the year of 1836 to swear that he would attempt to run away from his bondage as a slave. He is deeply aware of his natural right to be free and a burning hatred of his “prison”. What is interesting to note is that his reading matter which inspired these sentiments was a book of speeches used in schools, the Columbian Orator (1st ed. 1797), which provided him with both the theory of individual liberty as well as an historical context in which others had sought their liberty. No wonder that the slave owners made learning to read a crime.